Football: Russian great Tsybalar dies at 44

MOSCOW - Former Russian international and Spartak Moscow champion Ilya Tsybalar has died of a suspected heart attack at the age of 44 after a glittering career that saw him crowned the country's top player.

Russia's Rossiyskaya Gazeta government daily said the diminutive midfielder died on Saturday evening of heart disease.

"Tsybalar had a reputation as the most talented player in contemporary Russian football history," the state daily wrote on its website.

"His calling card was his elegant dribbling and his shot. And as any leader should, Ilya often scored vital goals," Rossiyskaya Gazeta said.

Tsybalar was one of the stars of a glorious Spartak squad that won seven titles in the 1990s and was renowned for its skillful passing reminiscent of Lionel Messi's present Barcelona side.

The team also included the likes of central defender Yury Nikoforov and Valery Karpin - two of the first post-Soviet stars to establish reputations in top western European leagues.

Tsybalar scored 54 goals in 204 matches for Spartak.

He also netted the ball on four occasions in 28 caps for Russia during performances that included the 1992 World Cup in the United States and the 1996 European Championship in England.

Tsybalar was officially recognised as the Russian league's top player on just one occasion in 1995.

But fans voted him as their favourite player on four occasions and he was hailed as one of team's greatest ever on Sunday by Spartak.

"Ilya Tsybalar was one of the strongest players in Russian football," Spartak Moscow said on its website.